Being "Countercultural" Is Not a Virtue

Now that same-sex marriage is legal in all fifty states, Christian opponents of marriage equality have sought to provide an adequate response. Some prominent right-wing leaders have not surprisingly adopted a more apocalyptic, condemnatory tone. After the Supreme Court announced its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, Franklin Graham, for one, criticized the ruling with a bad pun that conflated gay pride with God's judgment via a global flood in the book of Genesis. "Arrogantly disregarding God's authority always has serious consequences," he said. "Our nation will not like what's at the end of this rainbow."

Although such rhetoric is fairly widespread and common among a fundamentalist subset, many Christian opponents have seemingly resigned themselves to the reality of same-sex marriage, seeking instead to position themselves within a culture that has, it would appear, passed them by. In doing so, some have even attempted to shift the burden of acceptance, turning what has been an issue of gay rights into one of embracing religious differences, primarily theirs. Writing for Christianity Today, Mark Galli, for instance, noted that the "threat" that evangelicals posed to marriage equality and, more generally, gay rights and culture, is now "removed and it may not be long before we see more willingness to engage us as fellow human beings."

As part of this line of thought, some Christian opponents of same-sex marriage have likewise conceived of their communities as in exile from what they take to be the dominant culture and its trends. Put less negatively and, at least on the surface, more constructively, in some quarters the rhetoric has shifted to understanding Christian opposition to same-sex marriage as constituting a counterculture.

Making the rounds is an article by Carey Nieuwhof, Lead Pastor of the evangelical Connexus Church located north of Toronto, Canada, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2005. Writing to give advice to his U.S. counterparts, Nieuwhof reminds them that "for most of the last 2000 years, the authentic church has been counter-cultural." He goes on to state, "Being counter-cultural usually helps the church more than hurts it. If you think about it, regardless of your theological position, all your views as a Christian are counter-cultural and always will be. If your views are cultural, you're probably not reading the scriptures closely enough."

That message has not been lost on American evangelicals. Writing for The Gospel Coalition, a fellowship of conservative evangelical churches, Jennifer A. Marshall recommends that Christians show "countercultural resolve on marriage" in the wake of its legalization. She writes that it's important for the church to conceive of itself as a "counter-cultural formation," one that "will take intentional worldview formation and witnessing it in practice among a community of believers to help the next generation navigate this brave new world."

That may be theologically compelling to opponents of same-sex marriage, but the fact is that Christianity as a whole hasn't been "countercultural" for a very long time. Quite the opposite, really, despite nostalgic longings for the "authentic church."

Indeed, the Supreme Court's decision actually proves the point, in both the dissenting opinions and the majority opinion. Justices Antonin Scalia's and John Robert's vociferous dissents only make sense so long as one assumes as normative a "traditional" understanding of marriage, but even the majority opinion relies on a rather commonplace Christian logic to make its point. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy thus stated:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.

Whatever the critics may say, it's hard to get more Christian than that.

All this is not to say that there's nothing "countercultural" about Christianity. There is, as is the case with most religious traditions. But, on the one hand, it's not at all clear to what extent proponents of a countercultural Christianity really desire it as such. I haven't seen too many serious attacks on wealth and the family coming from the same quarters, for starters. Both of these, of course, feature prominently in Jesus' own counterculture of the kingdom of God (see, for instance, Luke 18:18-30). Perhaps that's because many of the recent calls for the "church to be the church" in the wake of same-sex marriage come from a place of lament rather than from genuine concern to live in the world otherwise. That is, it's about the loss of cultural hegemony and political power, more than anything else--with no hope of return.

On the other hand, there's no virtue in being countercultural for its own sake, especially when what is at stake is access to basic social institutions that have been and, to some extent, continue to be exclusionary. Christianity does, to be sure, contain within itself lines of thought and practice that can be conceived as critical of socio-cultural trends and institutions, but at its best such lines align themselves with justice, that is, with the inclusion of the formerly excluded. This applies even if the institutions in question are imperfect.

That many Christians today don't see the same with respect to gay rights means that the so-called dominant culture has the moral high ground, here. Such Christians would do well to reflect seriously on why their views on same-sex marriage and gay rights more generally have gone out of favor, rather than attempting a retreat into a countercultural enclave. They might see that the problem is not with the surrounding culture, whatever that might mean, but with those views themselves.